Date Climbed: August 20, 2016
Climbing Partner: Nicole
A full parking lot greeted us as we pulled in at 4 AM for the Longs Peak trailhead. Nicole and I had never seen it this crowded before, nor had we expected to share the trail with so many. I guess Colorado's most popular 14er was going to live up to its name this particular day! A long day lay ahead of us, so we brought plenty of water, food, and gear. With full packs, we set off into the night, making quick work of the trail before timberline. Having been here once before in the winter, we knew how to navigate the now dry trail with ease. Before long we were well above the clouds and a land of mist, blues, reds, and peaks greeted us. Since we did not have cameras for this twighlight, we were unable to capture many photos of these early moments, but I will never forget the vistas afforded to us on our early adventure.
Before long we were at the junction for Chasm Lake and Longs Peak. off to our left, the trail would descend along a steep sideslope, ending in one of the "Great Walls" of North America; the Daimond of Longs Peak. Comparable to El Capitan and Half Dome of Yosemite, The Diamond's easiest route was a 5.10 (basically only dedicated climbers could ascend), all at an altitude well above the walls of Yosemite Valley. But our journey would take us off to the right, pursuing the standard route of Longs Peak; the Keyhole. We began to pass one group after another, making quick progress.
Soon, our progress began to slow as we entered the Boulder Field and the infamous winds of Longs began to howl. It was summer, and already parties were being turned back by the wind. Thankfully, we had a little more experience and had endured the winds of winter, which were much more unforgiving. I knew that a flat area like this would be prone to wind, but it would die down once we were on the other side of the Keyhole.
At this point, we could hear the jet engine that was the Keyhole. It is possible to make out the Keyhole in the previous photo, but it is off to the right of the above photo. It was at this point that my mentor and friend, Jim Doenges, had been beaten back three times in the winter with the lethal winds that were a common theme on Longs Peak at that time of the year. Standing in the boulder field in the summer, I now knew why; the winds were persistent, even on a relatively "windless" day. I intended to do the impossible and beat him to a winter ascent this coming winter, but the winds would be the problem. A safe ascent is possible out of the wind up Kiplinger's Couloir (opposite side from our approach), but it was very avalanche prone. This side was safer from avalanche, but the winds could kill if I wasn't careful. But that is a story for another time!
We eventually made our way to the small stone shack that sits alongside the Keyhole, allowing visitors to get out of the wind for a bit. We gratefully partook. I had never seen a 14er with so much "luxury" before (save Pikes Peak and Evans)! There were pre-built campsites, a stone hut, and bathrooms. There might as well have been a Starbucks! I understand now why Longs Peak is so popular; it has enough amenities to make any hiker spoiled. After a quick break, we began our last mile.
After crawling through the "wind tunnel" of the Keyhole, we had relative solitude on the western slopes of Longs. The majority of hikers had turned around at the Keyhole because of the wind. A small group was debating whether or not to turn back, and I insisted that it was not that bad and that the wind would die down on the other side. They decided to go for it, and after a quick 30 foot scramble on the other side, the winds became calm (told you so!). Below us lay Glacier Gorge, another breathtaking vista. This is what made me decide this was one of the prettiest climbs up a 14er I had yet experienced.
As we came around a large rock rib, we were confronted by a fairly steep gully (called the Trough) filled with large Talus that was relatively stable. I did not recall this part in my preparations, but it was there none the less. We began our slow ascent up the gully, passing occasional climbers on their way back. In the shade of the mountain, it was very cold and I donned my rain jacket and gloves, while Nicole borrowed the down jacket. We passed a small group of climbers on their way down and asked how much further the summit was.
"You've still got about an hour and a half," one of them responded flatly. I think our frustration was evident because he tried to cheer us up by letting us know that the sunlight was just on the other side of the Trough. Up we went, making very slow progress over the snow, rock, and ice. But sooner or later, we made it, climbing up a large boulder and onto the Narrows.
This would be the beginning of the real exposure. Sections were so narrow that I would have to flatten myself against the cliff and scoot along sideways, while a thousand foot drop sat behind me. We reached a group of teenagers about halfway across the Narrows, resting in the warmth of the sunlight. We sat down next to them, gulping down water and snacking on food.
I could tell the teen next to me was not doing so well and asked if he needed help. "I'm okay. I'm just really freaked out by heights." He said, staring down into the abyss.
His friends told him to head back down and they would meet him at the Keyhole. As they left, I encouraged him to continue, "You've done the hardest part, man!" He kept silent. "Are you sure you want to turn around, you're so close you might as well just go the last few feet! You can do it no problem!" Again, silence. A few minutes went by and he began to nod his head.
"I think I'm okay now. I'm going up, but you all better go ahead because I'll be pretty slow." We hoisted our backpacks, and began the last stretch to the summit. I was glad he had decided to continue. It would be a shame to waste such a great day without a summit. Above us lay the final challenge; the Homestretch.
It was very vertical, and I could tell it would be a real challenge if there was snow and ice. Thankfully, it was summer, and there was very little ice left. We followed the conga line up the steep slab, taking our time with careful movements. A fall here would be very nasty, and possibly fatal. Many of the climbers were nervous, refusing to look back down when prompted by their partners. I felt a little bad for them; I understood they had a fear of heights, but that meant they missed out on the stunning views dropping down beneath us.
A few hundred feet later, we were on the large, flat, blocky summit of Longs Peak! Congratulations were in order, along with the usual summit photos (to prove we had actually done it). With such a nice day, we took our time drinking, eating and chatting with our fellow summiteers.
Eventually it was time to head back down, which would be a real challenge on the Homestretch. Just as we were about to descend, up came our friend that had almost turned around. His partners were surprised, but very glad to see him and cheered for him as he took his last steps onto the summit! It was rewarding to see, and I was glad he had overcome his fears to reach such a difficult peak. Well deserved.
Our descent was slower than coming up, and unfortunately, that's the way it would be all the way to the Keyhole. By the time we had reached the bottom of the Trough, my shoulders and feet were in a decent amount of pain, but we had to keep going. We agreed to stop at the Keyhole to rest and take a restroom break. Down, down, down we went, taking almost two hours to travel less than a mile. After what felt like half a day, we arrived back at the windy Keyhole, but this time there was not a hundred other climbers to greet us. We had it almost to ourselves. From behind came another climber, taking shelter in the small hut with us. We chatted for a good bit, and then continued our descent, wishing each other luck.
From the Keyhole to the restrooms (which was less than a half mile), we took about forty minutes. Longs Peak was not too bad on the way up. It was the descent that was the killer! But we did finally make it to the restrooms, and I opted to plop on the nearest boulder and rested. We sat there for half an hour, trying to summon the will to move and get back to the car. We were only a mile and a half from the summit, and still had around five miles left!
We eventually got up and began our long hike out. Eventually, the trail junction came, and we stopped again, running on empty. A curious marmot decided to sit next to me. I pointed my trekking pole at it, and it decided that the metal tip would make a good snack. We laughed as it nibbled at the pole, but left before we could get a picture. A little better rested, we began our final push to the truck. The last mile was the longest mile of my life (with the exception of Pikes Peak). "Will it ever end?!" We kept repeating to each other at every switchback. Finally I heard the familiar hum of car engines and could spot through the trees the reflections of cars. We had made it! Now with Pikes Peak and Longs Peak out of the way, all that remained were the shorter 14ers. Exhausted and hungry, but satisfied with out effort, we jumped in the truck and happily returned to Denver, with one less 14er on the checklist.